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(en) New Zealand, Dissident Voice* #7 - Book Review: The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 29 Dec 2004 10:08:53 +0100 (CET)

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Robert Alexander, The Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War: Vol 1, Janus
Publishing Company, London, 1999, pp. 703, ISBN 1 85756 400 6
It is possible to be an anarchist without reading a book on Anarchism or
even being literate. Thinking for yourself and observing get you a long
way. It is also a useful way to fend off annoying people. A friend once
related an anecdote wherein an Anarchist was approached by an
evangelical Trotskyist. The Trot tried to initiate a discussion on “The
objectively counter-revolutionary nature of the Kronstadt sailors” only
to be rebuffed with “Er? I don't know anything about that.” The
eager missionary gave up and went off to sell papers or whatever. While
such responses have their uses, knowing a few historical experiences can
buttress empirically based observations. Nobody knows everything, but
pulling the occasional historical example out of your political kit bag can
be useful. Hey, you might end up on a quiz show one day, who knows?

Having decided to look at historical events relating to Anarchism, you
sooner or later encounter Spain as a subject. That may summon up
references like paella, bull fighting, flamenco, Segovia, Goya, sunburnt
English tourists etc. Nothing wrong with that list as far as it goes. However
to Anarchists it usually includes the major social revolution and war that
erupted in the country in 1936 in which Anarchists fought against the
reactionary coalition of General Franco. Simultaneously they attempted to
build socio-economic structures along libertarian lines. Finally the bad
guys won, but not before real gains were made. It is still sometimes argued
that anarchism is faulty because it is incapable of dealing with the
complexities of modern, technologically advanced economies. i. Some
may say, “Well, good”, for the rest of us, Spain is a positive
example where anarchists did for a time deal effectively with evolved
modern circumstances.

There are thousands of books written about the Spanish war-revolution.
Many are broad overviews encompassing activities of every political
faction, others are studies of particular events or biographies and personal
accounts. There is a surprising paucity of those looking specifically at the
role of anarchists, in a sympathetic way. Robert Alexanders' book is a
welcome addition to that small number. Alexander is an American
academic who became interested in his subject following a sojourn as a
schoolboy. His parents would have preferred that he visit Nazi Germany,
but “ …they did not tell me that if a civil war broke out in Spain I
could not go there. So I concluded that silence gave consent. I went.”
ii. This began a sixty-year interest culminating in this book.

The work is organised thematically in four parts. The first is a narrative
description of the history and nature of Spanish anarchism and the
outbreak of the civil war. Much of the content will not be new to those
acquainted with the subject, but is a good overview for those who are not.
The significant point he makes is that the Spanish movement was
influenced by the likes of Proudhon and Bakunin, yet also produced
domestic theorists and had firm routes in the country. In addition to better
known individuals such as Isaac Puente and Diego Abad de Santillan, the
author mentions Ricardo Mella, Orobon Fernandez and Higinio Noja Ruiz,
thinkers not as well known in the English speaking world.

The second section discusses the military role of the anarchists. It is here
Alexander makes his most useful contribution to the historiography of the
conflict by demonstrating the substantial role the anarchists played at every
phase and theatre of the war. He makes a successful effort to show that
key events such as the defence of Madrid owe more to the anarchist
militias than Stalinist hagiography centring on the International Brigades
has allowed. He also dispels myths such as the alleged collapse of the
Durruti Column under fire and the putative ill discipline in the militias as a
whole. Alexander's motives however are more to criticise the Communists
than praise the Anarchists, whom he chastises for not overcoming their
traditional anti-militarism sooner than they did.

The third and fourth quarters survey the constructive economic
achievements made in the agrarian and urban sectors respectively. For
example, Alexander details how the rural areas were run collectively with
recallable delegates who came together at periodic assemblies. The
collectives usually operated without money, implemented infrastructural
development and increased production, offering practical evidence that
libertarian approaches could work. He also charts the role of anarchists in
respect to health, education and welfare provision and the operation of
businesses as diverse as textile factories, mines, communication and
transport systems. Interestingly he concludes that the short duration of the
experiment must lead to an open verdict concerning its long-term viability.
This open-endedness therefore requires a critical engagement with the
material and permits the reader to make their own conclusions, after being
given ample examples to consider.

There are faults in Alexander's book, such as this first volume not
containing its own index, making it less than user friendly. And despite
attempting a comprehensive account, he says virtually nothing about
certain important issues such as how the anarchists approached justice
matters. These lacunae not withstanding, this book largely succeeds in
providing a balanced yet sympathetic account of the anarchists in Spain
during the period. The next time you are looking for historical examples to
support personal observations, this book would be a valuable source of

i. A classic example in a standard work can be found in George
Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements ,
Meridian, 1962, p.28
ii. Alexander p. xii

--- Barrie Sargeant
* Aotearoa Dissident Voice - New Zealand's most unrespectable
revolutionary rag. Aotearoa Dissident Voice is a free volunteer-run
magazine that aims to provide an open space for the free flow of
anarchist and libertarian left news, analysis and creativity.
www.dissidentvoice.org.nz edcollective@dissidentvoice.org.nz

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